Church shoppers. They’re derided as fickle, self-centered customers caught up in the toxic fever of consumerism.

“People treat church and church programs like the mall,” said a church leader. “All they want is the latest shiny object and ‘what’s in it for me.'”

As church memberships decline and more people slip out the back door to try the church across town, church leaders look for someone or something to blame. And there may be some truth to the charge that consumerism is contributing to sagging church commitment.

But I suspect that the church itself has played right in to this sense of consumerism. If people are treating churches like stores in the mall, maybe it’s because churches are acting like stores in the mall. A consumer mindset is driven by a merchant mentality. And many of our churches have adopted the very consumeristic tactics they say they despise.

CONSUMPTION. The objective of the consumer is to receive. And most churches have designed their main product, the worship service, as a spectator event. The pew sitters come to receive. They passively listen to the well-rehearsed preachers and the professional musicians. It’s a scripted hour. Just like what consumers expect when they buy a ticket to a show. They pay the professionals to perform, while they receive.

COMPETITION. Merchants compete with one another. They boast about being the best in town. They don’t do any favors for the competition down the street. Increasingly, churches have adopted competitive postures, vying for the shrinking number of people who are browsing the commodities under the steeples.

ACCOUNTING. Consumer businesses measure their success by the numbers. And so do most churches. The bottom line that gets the prime attention is numerical–attendance, offerings, and square footage.

TRANSACTION. Merchants push to get you in the door. Make the sale. Close the deal. And many churches emulate the transactional model with altar calls, membership drives, and pledge campaigns. Staffers quietly refer to families as “giving units.”

Though some may try to rationalize these methods, many churches unwittingly portray faith as a product to be pitched. But faith is not a consumer product. Faith is a relationship.

Church leaders often describe our faith as a “personal relationship with Christ.” If that’s really true, perhaps it’s time to take seriously the essence of relationship. How does one pursue any good relationship? Is it a consumeristic shopping experience? Is it an academic exercise? The public might think so, based on how churches typically promote the faith.

How does a relationship-oriented approach look different for the church?

Rather than emphasizing a consumption model for worship, the relational church becomes more participatory, allowing for some dialog, conversation, and music that encourages congregational involvement. Congregants need to see that worship–and ministry–are everybody’s job. The paid professionals are there to empower and energize the people, not to perform for passive spectators. Relationships grow through two-way communication and shared involvement.

Rather than seeding competition and comparisons, the relational church looks to cooperate with all who share our common desire to see people grow in relationship with the Lord. The public, weary of churches’ competitive spirits, find any open cooperation among Christians to be inspiring and attractive. It’s a display of the true Body of Christ. Relationships grow through a spirit of cooperation.

Rather than calculating numbers, relational churches relate narratives. Rather than citing statistics, they tell stories. Rather than touting the number of butts in seats, they relate how God is moving in the lives of the members. Relationships grow through telling one another the extraordinary stories of our ordinary lives.

Rather than pressing for quick transactions and arm-twisting, relational churches focus on the process of relationship-building. Good relationships (including relationships with Jesus) usually grow gradually, over time, through trust and patience and love.

Sick of consumerism? Maybe it’s time to tone down the consumer-styled trappings of the contemporary church and reclaim the pursuit of a relationship with Christ–by acting like people pursuing a quality relationship.